Here's a team that most of the country has never heard of. Even if they have heard of the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits, most of the time, they have been disregarded as a Division I basketball team.
However, don't tell that to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
In their third game of the season last year, the SDSU Jackrabbits traveled to Iowa City, presumably to most, merely to be an early season victory for the Hawkeyes.
Unfortunately for Iowa, nobody told this team that it wasn't supposed to win. The Jackrabbits entered into hostile territory and took care of business, handing Iowa a 79-69 loss.
From that point on, not only were the Jacks taken seriously by every other opponent on their schedule, that was the coming out party for then-sophomore point guard Nate Wolters.
South Dakota State would go through the rest of its season as a well respected team. Teams such as Minnesota, Oakland and Oral Roberts, all nationally recognized power schools, saw this young, up-and-coming team for what it really is: talented. Although SDSU did not beat any of those three teams, all three left their contests with more respect for what the small-time D-I school from South Dakota was able to do.
2010-2011 saw the Jacks finish with a 19-12 record and bowing out of the Summit League Conference Tournament in the semifinals, losing to eventual NCAA tournament bid winner Oakland.
Coming into this season, the sky is the limit for this young team. Of the 15 players on the roster, only one of them is a senior—small forward Griffan Callahan. Two of them are juniors—Wolters and center/forward Tony Fiegen. The rest of the players are sophomores and freshmen.
Many would look at the lack of veteran leadership as a bad thing. A young team that looks like SDSU does is more likely to crumble under pressure without a proven leader.
While that may be true for most occurrences, that is not the case in the Midwest. Having a team full of sophomores and freshmen may seem scary, but there is also something to prove this year.
Much of the Jacks' leadership from last season is gone, leaving it in the very capable hands of Callahan, Wolters and Fiegen.
Looking at the team members, there is a boatload of potential with this team.
Wolters is the early season favorite for Summit League Player of the Year. He possesses all the tools a true point guard needs to be considered great: tremendous ballhandling ability, a silky-smooth jump shot and the slashing speed to drive through the lane on any given play. He's coming off a season where he was voted to the All-Summit First Team, becoming the first Jackrabbit to ever do that.
Callahan is your prototypical small forward. He has the range and height to be considered a shooting guard but loves to play in the post, manning up against bigger opponents. He's vocal and scrappy, something a young team needs to see from one of its vets.
Fiegen, a 6'7" post player, knows his way around the post, but isn't afraid to let it fly from mid-range. The Red-Headed Delight is an effective part of the offense, and he will look to command attention from opponents.
Rounding out the starting five are Chad White and Brayden Carlson.
White is a tough matchup for any defender when he's on offense. Not only does he have the shooters touch from behind the arc, at 6'6", he can also back down and bang in the paint with the best of them.
Carlson is your everyman guard. He can play the 1, 2 or 3 and not miss a beat. Quick cuts and ability to finish at the rim make this man someone who can cause problems for any opposing defense.
Bench players for the Jacks will be a huge factor to their potential success.
Led by its 6'8" sophomore forward, the versatile and agile Jordan Dykstra, the bench is where the youth experience comes into play the most.
Dykstra has the ability to shoot the deep ball with the best of them, coupling that with his inside ability, this big man is crucial to the team's continuity.
After Dykstra, sophomore forward Marcus Heemstra supplies the rest of the post play. Heemstra is another post player for the Jacks that has the mid-range shooting game to make him a versatile weapon on offense.
Zack Hortsman, Zach Monaghan and Taevaunn Prince will provide a spark off of the bench both on offense and defense. All three are freshman guards, providing relief and different styles of play that mesh well with the starting five, making for a true all-around athletic team.
Other potential key contributors include freshman guards Alex Olson and Sam Francis, and junior college transfer sophomore Austin Hennings.
Freshman guards Cory Jacobsen and Joey Feilmeier are both battling injuries, so their role on the team is unknown at this point, seeing as their practice time has been limited.
Head coach Scott Nagy has a lot to look forward to this season. Nagy has loads of talent and so many options in how to use them in his 17th year with SDSU.
Obviously, most of the attention will be focused on Wolters and his 19 points per game average from a season ago.
However, league opponents such as Oakland and Oral Roberts, two teams that are no strangers to postseason success, shouldn't look past the rest of the team for even a moment.
The second they do, the Jackrabbits could be in line for the conference championship, making it their first taste of D-I success.
South Dakota State may be a young team, but don't be surprised to hear that name pop up every so often when it comes to mid-majors on the rise.
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